Spin makes big events even bigger

Cable news chews on Olympics, election

For those fuzzy on math, here’s a key equation to remember: Big events + media hype = bogus, meaningless numbers.

To illustrate this trend, look no further than two spectator sports dominating the summer: the presidential election and the Beijing Olympics. In each case, figures are regularly distorted by the hunger for impressive-sounding facts, and perpetuated by misleading polls, fatuous studies and unquestioning reporting.

In preliminary judging for this faulty-math competition, the U.S. election — where the stakes are presumably higher — clearly takes the gold.

Nowhere is the appetite for numbers more ridiculous than almost-daily polling on the presidential contest, which seldom pauses to acknowledge how the margin of error renders perceived “trends,” up or down, utterly bogus.

Nor is there much mention on TV of whether poll respondents can be trusted, as the Wall Street Journal noted in an Aug. 2 piece titled, succinctly enough, “When Voters Lie.”

As far as lying to pollsters, consider a recent Rasmussen survey, which stated that 26% of Americans say they watch cable news daily for information about the campaign.

Sounds good, except that would mean more than 58 million adults watched cable news on an average day. Yet based on a two-week span during which the poll was conducted, Nielsen data indicate Fox News, CNN and MSNBC totaled 31.5 million viewers daily — suggesting that self-reported viewing was off by 45%. Even throwing in Headline News and CNBC, CNN placed cable news’ combined reach at 19%, meaning 7% of those replying either misled Rasmussen or couldn’t remember what they watched.

Take this as additional evidence that polling reactions are influenced by what people think is expected of them — one reason PBS does better in polls than actual ratings, while the reverse is generally true for pro wrestling and porn. It’s also why surveys about media sex and violence should be approached skeptically, since everyone knows the “right” answer, whatever their own viewing habits.

Political polling obviously serves a purpose and provides cable talkers something to chew over. It’s only when hosts and their sounding boards take the results’ validity as gospel — analyzing every dip and rise as if major shifts are occurring — that the process graduates from amusing to absurd.

With so much interest in the presidential sweepstakes, it also seems that everybody wants in on the action — including musty old academics. Hence the analysis by U. of Maryland economists, “The Role of Celebrity Endorsements in Politics: Oprah, Obama and the 2008 Democratic Primary,” which “estimated” (translation: took a higher-educated guess) that Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement delivered 1,015,559 votes to Barack Obama.

While the inanity of “Oprah = 1 million votes!” proved too enticing for media to resist, the 15,559 for good measure was a nice touch, making it sound that much more persuasive.

Unfortunately, the numbers surrounding the Olympics haven’t been much more reliable. Several newspapers, for example, uncritically carried claims that the Opening Ceremony would be seen by 4 billion people, or two-thirds of the planet’s occupants — appearing to conflate potential viewership to those who actually watched.

The Oscars have engaged in such tomfoolery for years, citing a global audience of 1 billion. Ultimately, that’s a bit like saying “The Mole” (average audience: 3 million) was watched by 290 million U.S. residents because that’s how many had access to it on ABC.

NBC hasn’t helped clarify matters by accentuating the overall reach of its Olympic coverage, including anybody that watched for even a few minutes. So while the first five nights averaged a gilded 31.3 million viewers in the U.S. — roughly on par with an “American Idol” finale — NBC has consistently led with the aggregate audience tuning in any part of the event, dramatically inflating the total.

Yes, there is some interest in that gee-whiz tally — wow, the Games have made contact with 170 million Americans — but it’s comparing apples and oranges in terms of the ratings commonly circulated regarding primetime fare.

By an unofficial count, then, here’s what we really know: NBC is doing quite well with the Olympics, and the race between Obama and Republican John McCain looks close based on prevailing voter attitudes.

Beyond that, feel free to knock yourself out wading through the research, but it’s a colossal waste of time — you know, plus or minus 15 minutes.

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